I visited Turkmenistan in 2003 on a three-month trip travelling back to Germany from China overland that also took me to Hong Kong, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia before ending in a Mad Dash Home to make it back in time for Christmas.
A word of warning. The quality of my pictures from this trip is bad, I was a bad photographer and I had an early digital 3,3 MP camera. Due to a shortage of memory cards I set the resolution down to 1 MP, what a mistake. Taken as memories from this trip, they are still quite enjoyable.
As the Central Asian states were more or less pushed into independence with the break-up of the Soviet Union Turkmenistan was one of the first to positively embrace the new position. It had a small population but large reserves of natural gas. As in most other Central Asian countries with independence the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic, Saparmurat Niyazov, took over as president. His vision saw Turkmenistan as the Switzerland of Central Asia, a small rich nation in the middle of things. It all went south from there. As I arrived, “his Excellency Saparmurat Türkmenbaşy (head of all Turkmen), President of Turkmenistan and Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers”, had become the president for life of the independent and permanently neutral Republic of Turkmenistan and developed an unrivalled personality cult. All opposition to his rule was met with force. He had written a book, the Ruhnama, described as the second-most holy book of Islam after the Quran. A review states: “A good laugh, totally mad this Turkmenbashi. Absolutely hilarious, total satire” I give you an excerpt (page239):
“Beloved Turkmens! This land is the Turkmens; these gardens, plains, deserts, mountains and plateaus are lands that we call our homeland. When we say homeland our ancestors come to mind and when we say our ancestors our homeland comes to our mind. Turkmens who never bowed before sword, spear or mace, shall bow to this land and our ancestors and kneel to show reverence for them.
In these sacred lands we have established our independent and permanently neutral Republic of Turkmenistan.
Independent and Neutral Turkmenistan! You are beloved because we found you in this sacred land.
Independent and Neutral Turkmenistan! As the world endures, you will live, because we are dedicating our lives to moulding you with love and affection, to adorning you with sincerity.
Independent and Neutral Turkmenistan! You are blessed because you are the state which our ancestors, though it was their hearty wish, could not achieve in eight centuries. We have built you on the wishes of our ancestors.
Independent and Neutral Turkmenistan! The Turkmen miracle and consecration starts with you. Only Allah is over you.“
It goes on like this forever and ever. The problem was that to get a driving license you had to take an exam on the book, government employees were tested on the book in job interviews. A month was renamed after it, another after Turkmenbashi himself and another after his mother. Turkmenbashi closed the local hospitals, telling people to go to Ashgabat because there was better medical care there (it is not a small country). He plastered the country with his picture and put a 12m high golden statue of himself on top of a 70m tower, the Arch of Neutrality. The statue would rotate so that his outstretched arm would always greet the sun. Ashgabat has more of these vanity projects. French construction company Bouygues is the collaborator of choice. An ensemble of five-star hotels was built at the outskirts to accommodate the non-existent visitors of Central Asia’s Switzerland. Turkmenbashi’s slogan was easy, “People, Nation, Me”. All around the delusional dictator, the country was crumbling, the US-dollar got three times more Manat on the black market as in the banks. People got the absolute necessities (housing, gas, bread) basically free but otherwise lived in poverty. Petrol was something like two cents per litre. That state of affairs also seemed to lead to apathy. I remember stepping on the bus to Bairam Ali and asking when the bus will leave, ten people sitting there and not a single one showing any reaction. Midway the bus stops at a stream and we have to refill the leaking cooler. Visiting the ruins of Merv, I wanted to take a taxi but none of the waiting drivers approached me, something that would have never happened in any of the other countries. Things are not working, Merv is in disrepair and the only renovations are carried out with Turkish help. All the other ex-Soviet republics have electronic ticketing systems for their trains by 2003. Turkmenistan does not, I only have a three-day transit visa and am short on time, I want to take a night train from Mary to Ashgabat but they do not know if there is space available. The whole train station is full of waiting people and only half an hour before the train arrives, they open the ticketing window and announce how many tickets they will sell. People start queuing in a mad rush to get those tickets. I wait all night and only get a ticket for the last train. It is dirty and we have cockroaches onboard. In Mary, I had another hotel experience. Returning to my room, the floor lady asks me bluntly if I need a girl. I respond that I don’t need girls, meaning I do not need this kind of girl. She obviously interprets my words differently, a few minutes later it knocks on my door, as I ask a male voice responds “I came for you”. No, thank you.
Before my visa expires I head to Iran, it is just over the mountains from Ashgabat.
As an update, Turkmenbashi died in 2006, the personality cult has stopped. The country is now misrun by his former dentist and many claim his illegitimate child.